4 college football teams to get to know this fall

For many people, fall is synonymous with football season (da Bears, anyone?). Taking the family to a pro football game can cost a small fortune and be a bit much for little ones to handle. But college football games can be a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Plus, there are options in and near the Chicago area that offer a wide variety of experiences.

Northwestern University

Mascot: Wildcats

Home Field: Ryan Field, Evanston

Tickets start at: $20

Whether you’re a Northwestern alum or one of Chicago’s many residents who graduated from a Big Ten school, you may be able to show your kids your team without traveling very far at all. This year, Northwestern faces conference foes the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Indiana Hoosiers, the Wisconsin Badgers and the Illinois Fighting Illini at home in Evanston. You can get to a Northwestern game by taking the CTA or Metra. Take the Purple Line to the Central Street station, which is just two blocks east of Ryan Field. Or, The Central Street Metra station is just two blocks west.

All guests must buy a ticket regardless of age, even babies. For kids 2 and under, a $10 “lap ticket” is available only on the day of the game and can be purchased at any ticket window.

At the game, there are tons of NU traditions kids will love, whether it’s lining Walker Way to greet the team as they arrive, learning “The Growl” when the Wildcats are on defense, or putting your hands in the air, along with a guest conductor, before the fourth quarter starts.

North Central College

Mascot: Cardinals

Home Field: Benedetti-Wherli Stadium, Naperville

Tickets start at: $6

Division III college football may not get a lot of national media attention, but there are 248 Division III college football teams, including the North Central Cardinals, the North Park Vikings and the Elmhurst Blue Jays. This year, North Central plays host to Wheaton College in a match-up known as the Battle for the Little Brass Bell.

North Central games are cost-effective, with tickets costing just $6 and kids 3 and under admitted free. If you’re in the mood to tailgate, you can do so in two designated lots, but it’s also easy to grab a bite to eat in downtown Naperville just a few blocks away from the stadium.

If the kids decide they’re not into the game, you can hit the Riverwalk or, if the weather proves to be a bit too much (for either you or the kids), you’re near the DuPage Children’s Museum, which offers climate-controlled fun.

Northern Illinois University

Mascot: Huskies

Home Field: Brigham Field at Huskie Stadium, DeKalb

Tickets start at: $25

With appearances in big bowl games the past few years, NIU has become a nationally recognized team. But if your kids aren’t that into the game, they’ll still think this is a fun outing that’s less than 90 minutes from Chicago. All kids over 2 must have a ticket. Children without tickets must be seated in the lap of an adult.

A few hours before kickoff, check out The Yard on the West Lawn. It’s home to fun pregame festivities, including face painting for little fans in the Kids’ Zone, as well as the bounce house and opportunities to meet athletes from other teams. They may even get a chance to give a high-paw to mascot Victor E. Huskie.

University of Notre Dame

Mascot: Fighting Irish

Home Field: Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Ind.

Tickets start at: $75

Notre Dame is two hours from Chicago, and it’s a mecca for college football fans. It’s definitely an experience, but it is not cheap; tickets are expensive, and every human must have one, regardless of age.

A trip to the Golden Dome, however, doesn’t have to break the bank if you’re willing to forego the game. It may sound blasphemous, but ask yourself if your kids are able to sit on bleachers through a three-and-a-half hour game. If so, go Irish! (Tickets can be found via social media, online sites and local alumni clubs.)

If not, you don’t have to miss all the fun. It’s not unusual for Chicago families to drive down just to experience the pregame pomp and circumstance, including seeing the marching band step off from the Main Building, watching the team walking across after mass, playing catch on the quad and more. Some stay and watch the game televised at different locations on campus. Others listen to it on the radio on the road home (less traffic!) and are able catch the second half from their couch. One other option: Drive down on Friday night for the pep rally.

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